Women in Science and Engineering

Allison Kasic writes of the coming academic tidal wave, a push to force science and engineering programs to have more women faculty members and students:

Several panelists, including former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, spoke of the need for massive “institutional transformation.” Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA) asked what sort of “hammer” the government could use to enforce this transformation. A popular answer was Title IX….

Another way to force change is pulling Congressional purse strings. The message from panelists was loud and clear: money talks and the government should leverage its funds to “ensure results.”

I have more than a passing interest in this question. My daughter is an engineering student. Many of her friends are female engineering students. Women are a minority in engineering, science, mathematics, and related fields, but they are a growing minority, and I have seen no evidence that they face discrimination of any kind. As things are now, women engineers are in high demand, for there aren’t that many of them, and they undergo the same rigors as any other engineering student.

Imagine what will happen if Shalala and company get their way. Science and engineering departments will have to hire faculty members they wouldn’t have hired otherwise; given the paucity of women with PhDs in these fields, differences in hiring standards will likely be large and noticeable to undergraduates. Students will be admitted who wouldn’t now be admitted, and will be retained who wouldn’t now be retained. The result: a woman with a degree in science or engineering will no longer be viewed as equal in skills to a man with the same degree, for there will be an entirely justified assumption that women are not held to the same standard as men. Depending on the balance of changes in admissions standards and in grading standards, it seems likely that many women will be admitted to schools of science or engineering who have limited interest or aptitude and thus have little chance of success. Just as affirmative action in law school admission arguably leads to fewer minority lawyers, so affirmative action for women in science and engineering may well lead to fewer female scientists and engineers.

That said, there are changes to science and engineering education that would probably go a long way toward increasing the number of women in those fields—as well as the number of Americans. There is a tradition of giving extremely difficult exams, containing problems of kinds students have not seen before, and of curving grades only at the end of the course. That’s intimidating and discouraging to anyone, and may be especially so for women.

In one physics course in college, my highest exam grade was a 27 (out of 100). At the end of the semester, I ran into the professor. He told me I ought to major in physics. I looked at him as if he were crazy. I had never received such low grades, and as a result of the course had lost all confidence that I could do physics. He told me that I had the highest average in the class!

That course is not unusual. Douglas Kern describes his own experiences (hat tip: Glenn Reynolds):

Reader, let us not dwell upon the endless problem sets, the wretched grades, and the weary nights spent screaming at my inscrutable textbooks. Compose in your mind a montage of quizzes covered in red ink, classes wasted in the stupor of incomprehension, and frowning instructors muttering strange incantations in their eerie scientific argot….

I nearly fainted when I learned that I received a 43% on the Physics final. I nearly fainted again when I learned that the class average was 38%. A sub-50% grade on a science test is a curious creature, as much the product of grader whim as academic achievement. “Hmmm…looks like he understood a tiny bit of this question. I’ll give three points out of ten. Or should I give four? Whoops…tummy rumbling…better make it three.” Having allegedly mastered 43% of the course material, I was now deemed fit to take even harder Physics classes. I wondered: at the highest levels of physics, could you get a passing grade with a 5% score on a test? A 3% score? A zero? Could drinking from a fire hose actually slake your thirst?

The pattern is not discriminatory, but neither is it very educationally effective. It does generate an esprit de corps; science and engineering education resembles boot camp. And it does identify students who have outstanding aptitude and creativity. It also, however, washes out many students who could succeed if the subjects were evaluated as most other subjects are.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not calling for grade inflation in science and engineering. In most fields, however, exams serve to verify that students have learned what has been taught; at most 25% of the points on an exam are devoted to distinguishing those who are competent, indeed, skilled, from those who can use their skills creatively to solve new and more complex kinds of problems. In science and engineering, the percentage is often much higher. In the humanities and social sciences, students who are skilled but not creative get Bs; in science and engineering, they end up with anything from a B to an F, for so few problems are devoted to distinguishing the skilled from the unskilled that exams do not distinguish them reliably.

Changing science and engineering exams, though it might be effective, is unlikely as a response to a push to increase the representation of women in these fields. If experience with other groups and fields is any guide—and if the appeal to Title IX is any indication—universities will (a) admit many women with poor chances of success, and then fail them, (b) create special programs for women that create second-rate degree paths, (c) deny many qualified men an opportunity to study, or (d) relabel various programs with high representation of women as science and engineering. Moving nursing or home economics (domestic engineering?) into another college, and, suddenly, the numbers can look a lot better.

It seems strange to worry a lot about this question, when women earn 35% more college degrees than men. If women are overrepresented in general, but underrepresented in science and engineering, there must be many fields in which men are significantly underrepresented. What’s the percentage of men in nursing? Psychology? English? Women’s studies? Why isn’t that a problem?

Men and women are interested in different things, for reasons that are as yet little understood. That inequalities in representation in various fields must be due to discrimination is nothing more than an article of faith.

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